By Jana Vamosi and Sarah Walshaw
Rice is the seed of the grass species Oryza sativa (Asian rice) or Oryza glaberrima (African rice)
Although we have evidence of rice being domesticated by 10,000 years ago in China, and Asian rice being introduced to Iberia by 1,000 years ago, rice pudding was not a Christmas tradition in Denmark until after WWII, when rice became increasingly popular.
African rice was independently domesticated by 3,000 years ago in West Africa and formed an important component of the agriculture along rivers, deltas, and swamplands from Senegal to Nigeria. It is thought that West African rice varieties and cultivation methods were brought by enslaved Africans on the journey to the New World– with some reports of women hiding seeds in clothing or hair!
Risalamande is what the Danish call rice pudding, which is rice, boiled with milk, mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds. It is usually served cold with a cherry sauce (kirsebærsauce) but in Canada it is common to replace the cherry sauce with homemade strawberry sauce. Many rice pudding recipes call for the short-grained varieties, including pearl rice called “pudding rice” by the English, although Italian recipes used arborio rice (better known as the base of risotto); however the long-grain basmati rice is a tolerable substitute.
It’s delicious but the fun is heightened by the fact that a single whole almond is added to the dessert, and the person who finds it wins a prize (such as marzipan). Often shenanigans will result, as whomever (you know who you are!) had been lucky enough to find the whole almond in their dish would tuck it in the side of their mouth and not tell anyone until the entire bowl of risalamande had been consumed.
Offering rice pudding extends to the guardians of the household as well. In Denmark, farms are considered watched over by mischievous elves or nisser, and every productive farm should have a benevolent “nisse” (pronounced nissa; see figure). In Danish lore, to keep Nisse happy, you must give them some rice pudding or porridge every Christmas or they will put a hex on you. Generally they are well mannered as long as you behave properly but they get a real hankering for rice products at Christmas. Rice pudding with sugar, cinnamon and butter (risengrød) is apparently their favourite. As you can clearly see, they are a tough lot and not to be trifled with.
(This post is part of a series exploring plants that are part of December festivities. Check out more at: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/about/advent-botany-2015/ )